Small Law Firms

Kourtney and Caleb Ballew, posing for a picture while at the White House for a state dinner with President Obama (with a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the background).

The White House State Dinner that President Barack Obama hosted on Tuesday night in honor of President François Hollande of France featured quite the convocation of legal eagles. As we mentioned yesterday, attendees included such law-world luminaries as Justice Elena Kagan, Secretary Jeh Johnson, and ATL’s reigning Lawyer of the Year, Roberta Kaplan.

Also in attendance: Caleb Ballew and Kourtney Ballew. They’re a pair of twenty-something, small-firm lawyers from Huntsville, Alabama.

Say what? Did the Obama White House get Salahi’d again?

Actually, no. The Ballews came as honored guests of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Because the Obamas have had so few state dinners, invitations to the ones they do host are in especially high demand. How did two recent law school graduates score one of the most coveted invites in the country? I interviewed the Ballews to find out….

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Christina Gagnier

Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

My foray into writing this column for Above the Law is appropriately timed with a running Evernote scribble of speculative episodes that my partner and I have been sketching out about our lives managing a small law firm. Running a boutique tech law firm in San Francisco led by two women with a bunch of under 35-somethings is fodder for a half-hour “dramedy.”

Hopefully, through some storytelling, this column can provide inspiration, and perhaps to some, caution, about running a boutique/small law firm. Some of the things that happen to us are a little too unbelievable to be true, but I assure you, they happened and continue to make us laugh (or cry).

A little backstory. My partner and I met at law school and quickly came to the realization that we needed to get back to work, or the entire experience of simply reading a lot of old material and regurgitating it back on exams would quickly claim our souls. So, as is the San Francisco entrepreneurial way, we started our law firm, then solely a public affairs consulting firm, by incorporating in the back of our Evidence class.

The starting operating budget? $87 from an AT&T account deposit refund. We scurried to the nearest Bank of America and began to live the American dream of being lawyers in a big city. I guess it was the American dream if the American dream consists of crashing on office floors, sleeping in airports, and working out of Starbucks. It was 2008, and we thought to ourselves, in the midst of the greatest economic upheaval since the Great Depression, that we would simply walk out of law school and start a law firm. Well, we are still here…

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Mediation. For some lawyers, it is a great way to spend a day; for others, it is an interminable bore, and ineffective to boot. It is easy to imagine that lawyers who have had successful mediation experiences are more likely to fall into the former category than the latter. What is more certain, however, is that mediation skills are increasingly important for a litigator to have, for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, most lawyers, especially Biglaw attorneys, are left to fend for themselves when it comes to developing those skills. That is a shame, as the importance of being able to mediate successfully has only grown in today’s business climate. More generally, negotiation skills remain under-taught in law schools and by law firms, and as a result are underdeveloped in many lawyers.

Any chance a lawyer has to develop their mediation skills should be seized. As an intellectual property litigator, all of my cases originate in federal district courts, and throughout the country, almost every case schedule includes mediation (or some other form of alternative dispute resolution) as a distinct event. Where on the schedule the mediation occurs, and whether it is held before a magistrate judge or local certified mediator, is usually up for negotiation between the parties. What is important is that mandated mediation is on the schedule. As a result, just as litigators need to know how to handle a discovery motion in a particular court, so should they be prepared to make the most out of whatever mediation process their case calls for. Interestingly, mediation has become an important part of appeals as well, including at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a familiar forum for patent litigators like myself….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: Mediation Matters (Part 1)”

Keith Lee

Everyone is familiar with the saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression. We size people up at a glance. People like to think that they take time to adequately weigh decisions, but in reality we often rely on “thin-slicing,” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink (affiliate link):

“Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. The unconscious works by sifting through the situation in front of you, parsing out irrelevant data and homing in on what really matters.”

What this means is that we are constantly making micro-decisions at a subconscious level about the world around us all the time. Now, that doesn’t mean we are always making good decisions or judgments, but we are making them. Which is why lawyers need to care about how they appear — in person and in print.

And from a filed Answer in a lawsuit that a reader sent me, it’s a lesson that one lawyer needs to learn….

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Some large law firms, when announcing year-end associate bonuses, also announce base salaries for the new year. In Biglaw, the salary scale hasn’t budged since January 2007, when Simpson Thacher announced the $160K scale (providing for base salaries ranging from $160,000 for first-year associates to $280,000 for eighth-year associates).

You could view this as a compensation cut, since we have had some inflation (even if not high inflation) since 2007. According to the inflation calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $160,000 in 2013, the latest year available, had the same buying power as $142,407 in 2007. Of course, law school tuition has climbed quite a bit since 2007 — so even for the lucky souls who land Biglaw jobs, the value proposition of a law degree isn’t as appealing today as it was back in 2007. You’re paying more for a degree that gets you less.

What’s the solution? Work for a firm that will pay you more than $160,000 as a starting salary, of course! Let’s say hello to the newest member of the $160K-Plus Club….

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In last week’s column, I drew some customer service lessons for lawyers from the way that Disney treats visitors to its theme parks. This week, I want to focus on how Disney incorporates technological advances into its theme parks as a means of enhancing the customer experience.

On my recent visit, I was struck by the presence of two familiar pieces of technology from the “real world” within the Disney parks: (1) Disney’s new smartphone app for theme park visitors and (2) the availability of wi-fi in most areas of the park. Each example illustrates distinct yet relate, approaches to implementing technology for the benefit of the customer. And while I am sure that each took Disney many man-hours to develop, test, and roll-out publicly, it was refreshing for me as a lawyer to see a company of that stature making the investment to do so. It was also a real contrast to my Biglaw experience, where implementing technology in a way tailored to improve the client (and even employee) experience was all too often a low priority….

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Social media is no longer new. This month, Facebook turns ten, joining LinkedIn, which hit the decade mark back in May. Lawyers have been blogging even longer than that, with the earliest lawyer blogs launched fifteen years ago. Even the book on Social Media for Lawyers that I co-authored with Nicole Black has been out for nearly four years.

Yet after all this time, social media still has limited traction in the legal profession, with few firms using social media for its “best and highest use”: engaging and interacting with colleagues and clients. Instead, large firms treat social media as another marketing channel to disseminate firm news and press releases, according to a recent ATL study, while solos and smalls treat social media as a poor man’s search-engine optimizer.  It’s no wonder that many practicing lawyers deride social media generally as a waste of time and counsel their colleagues to focus on traditional in-person networking, like meeting colleagues for lunch or getting involved in bar associations, to generate visibility and referrals.

Still, I wouldn’t give up on social media yet. The fact that so few lawyers understand how to use social media correctly makes it a powerful tool for solo and small firm lawyers. Here are three ways to use social media to get the most out of traditional, in-person networking, and to create new opportunities for yourself:

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Here was the ominous message that my colleague Joe Patrice received late last week from Georgia personal-injury lawyer Jamie Casino:

Hey Joe,

I saw the [story] you wrote about me. Good work. I got something big coming out at halftime during the Super bowl. Be sure to check it out.

JC

I didn’t know if that was a threat, but now I see that it was a promise. We couldn’t “check it out” during the game, being up here in New York, but afterwards readers started sending us tips about an explosive lawyer ad that had played locally in Georgia.

Uhh… be sure to check it out…

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Keith Lee

As I’m sure many of you heard, the southern part of the United States was blanketed with snow this past week. In particular, Georgia and Alabama (where I live) were hit particularly hard. This being the Deep South, people and municipalities were not prepared for the quantity of snow and ice that came down so quickly. This led to widespread disaster and lots of Walking Dead jokes.

Some people have attempted to explain why 2-3 inches of snow was capable of crippling cities. While many people have scoffed at such explanations, they are true to some extent. But of course, that doesn’t relieve people of responsibility of behaving and driving like morons. As things settle down and return to normal, finger pointing and blaming will likely continue to go on for sometime.

But the most interesting aspect of the “Southern Snowpocalypse” is the reaction of people in the aftermath of the storm….

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It’s been well documented in these pages that male lawyers in Texas are a little rough around the edges, and many of them seem virtually incapable of getting along with their female counterparts. To that end, some of them have threatened to enlarge opposing counsels’ assholes, and others have used terms of endearment like “c*nt,” “flat-chested bitch,” and “dumb sh*t” when referring to women colleagues.

With that as a backdrop, it’s no wonder that even more colorful allegations are coming out as a result of a small-firm breakup in Texas. Sure, the defendant in this case may have allegedly “emptied” the firm’s bank account before she left for her new firm, but perhaps she had a good reason to do so.

You’d probably want to take the money and run too if your partner was allegedly sexually harassing female employees and “requesting sex for favorable treatment” within the firm….

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